Anna Jarvis, the woman credited with leading the first Mother’s Day celebration in 1907, lived to see a tradition she loved transformed into a commercialized practice that she despised. Jarvis, who wasn’t actually a mother herself, created the tradition in tribute of her own late mother, Ann, who had founded Mother’s Day Work Clubs in West Virginia to help families with sick mothers. On May 12, 1907, two years after Ann’s death, Anna handed out 500 white carnations to all the mothers at her late mother’s church in her honor. According to an article in The Atlantic Constitution published five years later, the white carnation soon became the official flower of Mother’s Day. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson officially made the tradition a national holiday.
Unfortunately, the opportunity posed by the holiday proved extremely tempting for florists and confectioners, who by the 1920s had already discovered that families would eagerly pay to buy flowers, cards, and chocolates to celebrate their mothers. Jarvis, who believed that gratitude was more sincerely communicated through handwritten letters that actually expressed people’s love for their mothers, would spend much of the rest of her life combatting the commercialization of Mother’s Day — and even faced arrest in 1925 after she disrupted a confectioner’s convention in Philadelphia.
Jarvis later lost her eyesight and spent her final years holed up in a Philadelphia sanatorium, according to The New York Times. She was destitute, but each year on Mother’s Day, her room was deluged with just the type of greetings she railed against — mass-produced cards. Jarvis died in 1948 at the age of 84.
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